Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 13, 2016
Psalm 126 Commentary
We’ve come a long way on our Lenten journey, but we’re not there yet. We’re still on pilgrimage, so Psalm 126 is a perfect Psalm for this stage of our lives. It is the seventh of fifteen Psalms of Ascent sung by ancient Israel as they journeyed from the various parts of the Promised Land to Mt. Zion where they would meet their God with shouts of joy. Psalm 126 perfectly captures the tension of the pilgrimage to Mt. Zion/Mt. Calvary.
We live a great deal of our lives between hell and heaven, not in utter misery exactly, but not in sheer ecstasy either. We live “in-between,” and that makes our Lenten pilgrimage a time of great joy and of deep sorrow. The Psalmist expresses the difficulty of our “in-between” existence with the opening lines of the two sections of the Psalm. “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion…. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” An alternative translation of verse 1 helps us to see the tension better. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…. Restore our fortunes, O Lord….” What are we to make of that? If God has restored our fortunes, why would we ask him to restore our fortunes?
Well, what does that recurring phrase mean? James Luther Mays points out that “restore our fortunes” is a familiar theme in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Though it is difficult to replicate the Hebrew in English, it refers to “a radical change from the conditions brought about by divine wrath to those which result from divine favor.” As Psalm 126:3 puts it, “The Lord has done great things for us….”
What great things? This restoration of fortune could refer to any number of times when God radically changed Israel’s situation, but the most obvious referent here was God bringing Israel back to the Promised Land from Exile in Babylon. Clearly that’s how the NIV understands verse 1. “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion….” By God’s grace and power God’s people had been brought back to the Land. But that return to the land hadn’t restored the people, so the Psalmist prays, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” We are back here in this blessed place, but we are still a sinful people, dry and fruitless as the desert. We need streams of your grace, so that we might flourish spiritually and morally like a desert after the monsoons.
That’s one way to read the tension in the two stanzas of the Psalm (restoration to the Land versus restoration of the people), but there’s another way that actually makes more sense historically and theologically. We can get at that by noting that some translators render all of the verbs in the Psalm either in the future tense, making it a prayer for help (a communal lament by a people not yet restored at all) or in the past tense, making it a prayer of thanksgiving (a communal song of praise for a restoration completely accomplished). But if we translate the Psalm as the NIV does, partly past and partly future, the tension fits both our personal stories and the meta-narrative of salvation history.
In the opening three verses of Psalm 126, the ancient people of God are recalling their deliverance from hell. They had spent 70 long years in the Babylonian captivity, exiled from everything that had defined and enriched their lives. They had lost everything. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” That’s exactly how they felt. Things seemed hopeless. They could see no way out, so when the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, they couldn’t believe it. “We were like men who dream.” They hardly dared to believe what had just happened. Their God had actually intervened in the affairs of nations so powerful that they had nearly destroyed God’s people. Yahweh had raised up the Persians to defeat the Babylonians who had taken Israel captive. Then the king of Persia promptly set the captives free. After 70 years of Babylonian Captivity, the first Israelis came back home.
No wonder their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with songs of joy. No wonder the surrounding nations said, “The Lord has done great things for them.” He had. And the Jews knew it. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” When they looked back at the hell from which they had been delivered, thanksgiving was easy. They overflowed with it. They gave thanks with laughter and songs of joy. Why wouldn’t they?
Well, because they were still in-between. They were out of hell, but they weren’t in heaven yet. So even as they gave thanks with joy, they prayed with sorrow, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” The problem was that so few had come back home, and home was such a mess, and the neighbors were such a problem. It was a small band of refugees, and the Promised Land was like a desert. They had no homes. Their fields and vineyards, not having been cultivated in years, had gone wild. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, and their Temple had been demolished. Their neighbors, themselves victims of the Babylonian policy of moving conquered people to foreign lands, resented and feared the restored Jews. They were home for the holidays, but home wasn’t what it used to be.
So as they looked ahead to the daunting task of fixing everything that was broken in their lives, they felt hopeless. They needed a miracle, like the desert region called the Negev being transformed into a fertile land by the fall rains. And so they prayed. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.”
Many of God’s people today know that feeling all too well. As we sit in church, how many of us are “in-between” and feeling ambivalent about giving thanks with songs of joy? It might be helpful to think your way into the lives of your people to help them frame their lives in terms of this in-between tension. “You’re happy that you are back with your boyfriend after you broke up last fall, but there are lots of issues that need to be resolved before it will be heavenly again, and there’s no guarantee it will work. You’re grateful that your broken leg is well enough for you to leave the care facility, but you still have lots of pain and rehab ahead of you before you can dance again. You’re delighted that the stock market has recovered from its 2008 lows, but the recent volatility has you worried that your fortunes might drop like a rock again. It feels good to be in church again after that severe crisis of faith, but you still struggle with unanswered prayer and unjust suffering. Somehow you survived a deep marital rift over the holidays and you are pleasantly surprised to be together as spring approaches, but things are still pretty shaky and you don’t know what the summer will bring. Last spring you celebrated your graduation from college and a new job in the field for which you trained, but the economy is threatening the company and you don’t know if you’ll be employed in 6 months. You’re thankful for a long and happy life, but you are discovering the truth of the saying, ‘Growing old is not for sissies.’ And you wonder if the last years of your life will end with a bang or a whimper?” There are an infinite variety of in-between situations in life.
What’s more, and even more important, the whole world is suspended between hell and heaven. Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God has come and proved it by his miracles and his resurrection, but the Kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness, as evidenced by the rampaging power of evil and the alarming growth of unbelief in its many forms. This tension between “the already but not yet” is a challenge to the church’s faith. Jesus came to redeem the world, and the existence of the world wide church is the proof that he did. But the world is still waiting its full redemption. So with ancient Israel the church sings with joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes…. And we are filled with joy.” And with the whole world, we cry out, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” “The agony and the ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity.” (James Luther Mays)
This Psalm gives us a wonderful opportunity to help our people deal with those awful times when they are suspended between hell and heaven. The Psalmist calls us to remember the great things God has done in the past and to rely on God to restore our fortunes in the future. The final verses are especially helpful, as they make a soberly realistic and powerfully hopeful promise. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping carrying seeds to sow will return with songs of joy carrying sheaves with him.”
Yes, there will be sorrow as you journey up to Mt. Zion, as you are on pilgrimage to your final encounter with God. There will be tears a-plenty as you follow the Man of Sorrows. But here’s how you should view the sorrows of life. They are seeds that will yield an abundant harvest. Each tear you shed is a seed that will produce a sheaf of joy. Think of Jesus’ parable of the Sower. The tears you shed for yourself, for your family, for the church, for the world will bear fruit beyond your imagining, producing a harvest of joy that is 30, 60, 100 times greater than the sorrow.
How can we be sure that it is true? How can we trust this beautiful promise when the tears are falling like rain? We need to look at Jesus. The Lord has done great things for us, the greatest of which was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Looking ahead to his own death Jesus said in John 12:25, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Then he died and fell into the ground and sprang to new life that produced fruit beyond imagining. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” shouts I Peter 1. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead….” The Man of Sorrows became the Lord of Joy. He will not allow our tears to simply sink into the parched soil of our suffering. Rather, he blesses them and transforms them into sheaves of joy that we cannot imagine.
So as we continue our pilgrimage to Mt. Calvary and the empty tomb, let’s call our people to do three specific things. Look back and give thanks for the ways the Lord has delivered you. Look ahead and give thanks for the harvest the Lord will give you. And most of all, look up to Jesus, who knows exactly what it is to be suspended between hell and heaven. Ask him to send streams of grace into your desert. Give thanks for the way Jesus is changing your seeds of sorrow into sheaves of joy.
Some of our tears are specifically Lenten tears, tears of sorrow for our own sins, the kind of tears alluded to in last week’s reading from Psalm 32. But the idea of weeping for our sins will seem irrelevant if not outrageous to many postmodern folks. Correspondingly, the joy of forgiveness will be a distant, even unimportant promise for such people. James K. Voiss talks about this in an important new book about forgiveness, Rethinking Christian Forgiveness: Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Explorations. He argues that the traditional account of Christian forgiveness no longer works for many people, because they do not see themselves as sinners deserving God’s wrath who have been mercifully spared. In a “postmodern ethos” the “landscape of Christian forgiveness has shifted” because for a growing number of Christians the language of sin, judgment, and damnation has become increasingly marginal, even irrelevant; thus, we need to tell the Christian story in a new way. (This comes from a review of this book in a recent issue of The Christian Century.)
That may well be; we must always be thinking about how to preach the gospel to each new age. But we must be careful that in our reframing of the story, we don’t lose its depths and heights. Remember how Mays defined the “restoration of fortune” in the Old Testament, as “a radical change from the conditions brought about by divine wrath to those which result from divine favor.” We may not like to hear about sin and wrath, but the Bible does contain a lot of both. And both are the dark backdrop against which the brightness and joy of forgiveness and reconciliation shine most brightly. Let’s not deprive people of the songs and sheaves of joy by downplaying the tears of repentance for sin.
I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, which is famous for its opening question and answer. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to may faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” It then goes on to spell out the wondrous advantages of belonging to Jesus, in terms that warm the heart. But then it asks and answers a question that might chill the heart of the postmodern folks to whom Voiss refers. “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things: first, how great my sins and miseries are; second, how I am set from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” There you have it. Knowing our sin is one key to knowing our greatest joy.
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